The Venereal Gadfly: More Notes towards a History of Orgasm


Frenzy of Exultations, Władysław Podkowiński, 1894

by Justin E. H. Smith

I’ve observed before that until at least the early 19th century, ‘orgasm’ did not mean what it does for us today. In La philosophie zoologique of 1809, for example, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck uses the term to describe something like the vital principle in an animal, which in various other iterations has been called élan vital, archaeus, soul, etc. He defines ‘orgasme‘ as “the state preserved by the internal, soft parts of animals insofar as they are alive.”

At some point after Lamarck, I imagine, the orgasm comes instead to be seen as a sort of culmination or maximal expression of this force, as the moment in which we are living our bodily life to its fullest. I suppose. I’ll try to chart the development of this new meaning some other time, but what interests me here is the matter of how, if not by the term ‘orgasm’, did authors up to Lamarck’s era describe this physiological event?

In my reading of Latin texts on animal generation I’ve often come across a curious phrase, the true meaning of which escaped my attention until yesterday, when I found it in Tobias Andreae’s Brevis explicatio corporis humani prout anima vegetativa pollet of 1669:

Oestro igitur venereo animalia perfectiora irritata, spiritum seminalem tam subtilem emittunt, ut licet (observante Harveo) visibile semen penetralia uteri non intret, hic tamen pervadens spiritus.

The more perfect animals, therefore, agitated by the venereal gadfly, emit a seminal spirit that is so subtle that (as Harvey observes), granted that it does not enter into the innermost reaches of the uterus, nevertheless this spirit pervades.

Oestrus venereus, obviously, is a fixed expression for ‘orgasm’. But oestrus, in turn, without its venereal modifier, originally had a much broader scope. Thus in Liddell and Scott’s dictionary of classical Greek we find:

ΟΙΣΤΡΟΣ. the gadfly, breese… an insect which infests cattle… II. metaph. a sting, anything that drives mad, Eur. : absol. the smart of pain, agony, Soph. 2. mad desire, insane passion, Hdt., Eur., etc. : –generally, madness, frenzy, Soph., Eur.

So oestrus, or oistros, means in the first instance ‘gadfly’, ‘pest’, and secondarily, ‘irritation’. One striking thing about this term in its later transformations in scientific Latin is its strong association with female physiology: thus ‘estrogen’ is, etymologically, the hormone productive of sexual irritation in women, while non-human female primates spend a period of each month, ‘estrus’, that is, in visible sexual agitation.

But why is the sexual itch marked as feminine? One thing that comes as a surprise to people with little historical memory is that it was not until very recently that sexual insatiability came to be associated with men. In the early modern period, these were classic female attributes, and if a man were to exhibit them he would be thought to have lapsed into effeminacy. The idea that men are naturally and essentially the lustful ones, and the pseudoevolutionary explanations that are offered for this idea, are really nothing more than apologetics for our own current set of prejudices. I have never come across a single early modern male author who owns up to his own libidinousness. They write about themselves as if sexuality were not a defining factor of their existence.

But when did the shift of prejudice occur? I suspect that it happened roughly in tandem with the shift in the meaning of ‘orgasm’, which in turn was a reflection of a much broader shift in the conception of the place of sexuality in an individual person’s identity. The culmination of the sexual act came to be described not as the relief of an itch, as a physiological release comparable to sneezing, but rather as the culmination of the vital force of the body, again, as the supreme expression of one’s bodily life. And naturally, it was men and not women who came to be seen as charged with this vital force.

This lexical shift, away from an association of sexual climax with feminine ‘estrus’ (in the Euripidean and Sophoclean sense) and towards an association with masculine ‘orgasm’ (in the Lamarckian sense), leads me to think that the idea that female orgasm remained largely unknown to men until the sexual revolution is really a symptom of our own era’s lack of historical depth, of our tendency to begin our histories in the Victorian period. Female orgasm was well known long before ‘orgasm’ came to mean what it does today, but it was conceptualized as a physiological disorder to be dissipated, an irritation, and not as a ‘positive’ force.

I had hoped that something could be said also of Plato’s description of Socrates in the Apology as a ‘gadfly’, which, along with the familiar leitmotif of the Socratic dialogues, according to which the philosopher functions as a ‘midwife’ for the birthing of ideas, would have perhaps provided some more fuel for the idea that there lies, at the origins of the philosophical tradition, what in some circles might be called a ‘genderfuck’. But it turns out that the word Plato used for this sort of gadfly was μύωψ, while the extension of oistros or oestrus to sexual irritation, and the addition of the modifier ‘venereal’ seems to be an invention of early modern or Renaissance Latin medical writing. Still, I take the shift in our conception of sexual climax, from estrus to orgasm, and at the same time also from female to male, to be no less remarkable a genderfuck, and, if I’m right, to offer a powerful piece of evidence in favor of a revisionist account of the history of sexuality since the beginning of the modern period.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website